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Writer’s Block or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Writing Again
An essay on writer’s block, guilt, and turning your passion into a career
Guilt seems to be something we cannot agree on as a culture. Some argue it’s a useless emotion with no purpose beyond making you feel shitty about things you might not even have control over. Others suggest guilt can serve a purpose when mistakes occur, and if you force yourself to sit with negative emotions, you end up better in the long run. At the very least, you might become more self-aware. Both perspectives might very well be true, but the cynic in me thinks the former and some elements of the latter are just the latest espousement of therapy-speak sifting its way into our already lumpy daily dialogue about mental health and emotional resilience. It’s clear that neither side views guilt as an all-absorbing force—something that can embed itself into your psyche and daily routine.
My guilt creeps in over small things like forgetting to wish someone a happy birthday or not congratulating them on their success. I know I should, or at the very least, I want to be someone who always would, but sometimes I can't muster the energy for feelings of joy and celebration. It emerges when I realise that I haven't been as close to my family as I think I should be; I'm failing them as a daughter, sister, cousin and grandchild. Sometimes I feel guilty for spending time in the lives of those who have loved me, because to love me is to receive love from someone holding you at a distance.
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But mostly, the guilt comes from the fact I'm not writing enough.
Unlike the external guilt of forgotten well wishes, unanswered family group chat messages and avoided relationships, the writing block festers itself as internal guilt. It's a hodgepodge of falling short of your own expectations and deep-rooted insecurity from the all-powerful imposters' syndrome.
My writing career began online ten years ago, and since then, I've experienced writer's block several times. Yet with each new block, I become more and more abrasive with myself. Whenever I felt blocked in my late teens, I used to go on a walk to clear my mind and return to my laptop, having figured out all the parts needed for an article. Writing back then was unpaid, stress-free and anonymous—all the things writing isn't anymore. Now, I remove myself from the act of writing entirely: I'll call myself a talentless hack who needs the help of editors to strike gold. There's an independence I have developed over the years, one that feels shame for wanting help or asking for it, even though writing has always been a collaborative process for something so intimate.
After months of not writing anything my block considered pride worthy, I took a page out of my old playbook and did what nineteen-year-old Haaniyah would’ve done—I watched a movie and saw a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. Instead of going to London as always, I went to Oxford, my old university town. It was here that my block began to take on a more unsightly mangled appearance. My life for the first year of university was plagued by stress-induced episodes of anxiety from keeping up a 2:11 average while running an independent publication I started at seventeen. By the spring of 2019, I had left the publication and abandoned creative writing outside of academia. Before I started university, I hoped teachers would be gushing about my talent and intelligence as a first-year—a rather foolish fantasy that I imagine a lot of formerly homeschooled students have. Instead, I failed my publishing module and found that my screenwriting professor thought my ideas were idiotic. Definitely a blow to my ego.
After my friend Nadia and I walked out of our screening of Beau is Afraid (not good, I’m afraid), we started talking about writing and our lack of publishing on Substack. I complained about my writing anxiety and that I couldn’t figure out why I felt so blocked. She told me that maybe I should wait for inspiration to strike and then quoted Toni Morrison, stating I shouldn’t write through a block. I knew Nadia was right, but I’m stubborn, and honestly, I haven’t got many hobbies that don’t involve writing in some respect. I started writing for fun as a child because I needed an outlet, and soon that outlet transformed into blogging and then a career, but with that shift, I found myself unable to write without thinking about how my work will either benefit me in some way or cast me aside as a has-been.
Can you be a has-been at twenty-four?
I feel like I've fallen behind. It's just that I can't figure out why or how. Did I take a step back when I moved home to pursue freelancing instead of sticking it out in the big city like the rest of my peers? On the surface, it looks as if a lot of people in their twenties who live at home are working at their dream jobs. Let's face it, nobody admits to failing on LinkedIn. Instead, you scroll through success story after success story, hoping that, at the very least, someone else is struggling as much as you are. I knew it wouldn't be easy for me—my parents aren't wealthy, well-connected and frankly, for a long time, they preferred their dream of me teaching English in the Middle East. There's no nepotism in this story, just a gut feeling I had at fifteen that I'm meant to be a writer. Maybe that was just a teenage delusion from someone who couldn't decide what she wanted to be when she grew up.
In any case, the journey isn't coming together the way I thought it would. Is there something uniquely off about me? Or do I want it too much? Does my staunch independence set off a pungent smell of intractability to anyone who might be able to turn around my plateaued career? More importantly, is it spilling over into other areas of my life?
For the past four years, I've woken up to a stabbing pain in my lower abdomen. At times, it's the first thing I feel when my eyes open to the blurriness of the morning. It's there before hunger pangs or the annoyance of not getting enough sleep—a sharp reminder that my body's aches are releasable in slumber. Other times, I wake up with no memory of the past four years spent in muted agony, but as soon as I sit upright, the pain grabs hold of me, huddling me in its embrace. Throughout the day, the pain reshapes itself from sharp and rapid to dull and slow, making me the most uncomfortable when I go on walks or go to the cinema—some of the only activities I seem to have these days in my supposed year of rest and relaxation.
When I was twelve, my mother sat me down and warned me of The Pain. She said even though I would only experience it infrequently, I should be prepared for a gnawing and merciless affliction. However, it never showed up. At the time, I childishly felt like I had been the luckiest person ever—unlike my friends and classmates who complained about how intense their periods felt, physically and emotionally. The truth is, my preexisting emotional rollercoaster of pre-pubescent depression, anxiety, and neurodivergence heavily influenced my emotional state, making the extra hormones almost insignificant in making me feel more out of control.
By the end of 2019, that luck had run out, kicking off my long-term relationship with doctors' offices and emergency rooms. Hospitals were a reoccurring location throughout my childhood because of my mother's chronic illness. While I should have gotten used to it, the smell of antiseptics and intense overhead lighting made the already challenging experience of visiting my mother during dialysis considerably worse. In the years I sat next to her, I prayed for her recovery and good health. But every so often, I also begged Allah that I'd never have to go through the dismissal and hardship she had experienced as a Black woman reliant on the British healthcare system.
The first time I went to A&E2, doctors told me the pain was probably my appendix bursting. After days of poking and prodding me with every scan, blood test and checkup they had, they were disappointed that this was not the case—appendicitis is an easy fix compared to examining the true reason for my discomfort. I went for GP3 visit after GP visit, interspersing emergency rooms in between for my unending pain until a doctor at A&E (the fifth one I'd seen) pointed out that maybe it was a reproductive issue. He was also the first doctor to give me a painkiller prescription when the other four said paracetamol would be enough—they all but told me I was exaggerating the severity of the pain.
You'd think after being told what area of your body was breaking down, it would be easier to go to a doctor and say, "Hey, please fix me!" but as I quickly learned, existing in a fat and Black body gave doctors a million and one excuses for what to focus on instead of my persisting crisis. As a result, I had to research how to advocate for myself, which is intimidating for anyone, let alone a twenty-one-year-old. Maybe I should claim a medical degree from Google Medical School since I know all the symptoms and cures for every reproductive issue known to humanity. It could be endometriosis, fibroids, ovarian cysts, polycystic ovary syndrome or the dreaded ovarian cancer—it's a lucky dip, and the prize is a hysterectomy in twenty years.
If you're intrigued by how I've survived for four years without being diagnosed, here's the secret formula:
An excellent cocktail of over-the-counter painkillers.
Raspberry leaf tea.
A heavy codeine prescription.
Two tried and failed forms of birth control that worked for a while and then became ineffective. These include:
The Progesterone-only Pill (POP)—because a doctor's primary concern is your weight gain and nothing else. The pills work for two months, but then you spend four to five months with a heavy period.
An IUD (Mirena coil)—fitted with what should be considered a modern-day torture device. It works for around nine months, but you start spotting, and the abdomen pain promptly returns with a vengeance.
Combined, they work like a charm when nobody wants to investigate why you've been bleeding for over a month— the latest instalment of my uterine warfare.
Four things nobody tells you when your body stops working:
You decided you didn't want kids at fifteen, and you were content with that choice, but now there's a thought nibbling around in your brain, filling you with regret that you can't even try.
In no time, you'll discover that people you thought were your friends have little to no patience when you don't want to extend yourself past your discomfort level. Soon, all the events and nights out you used to attend are no longer brought to your attention, and now you're at home looking at IG stories with envy.
Speaking on discomfort, you'll also realise that the preexisting judgement you got for being fat before your chronic illness is exacerbated when you make things easier on yourself by getting Ubers or sitting around.
Your writer's block worsens because you can't focus on talking or writing about anything else, which totally kills the chill girl persona you've so clearly curated on your blog.
Surely, now is the perfect time for me to have a flare-up. I'm not at uni or work, and any freelancing I do is WFH4. All I have to do is sit in my bedroom or living room and do the work I've been paid for. Weirdly, it feels like there should be something freeing about being chronically ill (ignoring the debilitating pain and a decreased social life). My writing is the one thing I can nurture and take care of whilst my physical being is withering away. Yet, I sit at my laptop staring at the caret that blinks back at me like it's waiting for me to fulfil some prophecy or long-awaited best seller. Everything I type out sounds too cringe, childish or eerily similar to writing I've read the day before. Not to mention, the advice given by Toni Morrison via Nadia didn't seem to work. As much as I'd love to write once a year and wait until my anxiety cures itself, I can't do that in an industry built on always making your presence feel known until you hit your big break.
Looking for other inspirations for overcoming a block, I found that Ray Bradbury once stated that the block is merely a manifestation of your subconscious, knowing that you're focusing on the wrong work. That would have been helpful if the block meant that I was uninspired, but that wasn't the case. Most of the folders on my laptop desktop contain countless ideas I could work on—unfinished TV, short film and feature-length scripts that need editing, half-written novels and a list of pitches I could send out. The issue wasn't a lack of ideas. My problem was that I've never experienced a block bad enough to make me doubt my writing ability.
Am I good enough to have the following I’ve built? Maybe all those acclaimed essays and articles I’ve written are just an amalgamation of things I’ve seen online, except now they’ve been regurgitated with my spin of neuroticism. I worry that my language is too flowery—that I can’t just get to the fucking point, and midway through my sentences, readers will drop dead from boredom. What if it’s the opposite? Am I so unrefined that my readers secretly wonder if I know what a thesaurus looks like?
It should be clear by now that self-criticism is a fundamental part of my process, but at one point, it served a healthy function, forcing me to push myself beyond what I expected of my writing. The problem is that even though I've outgrown the function—knowing that the criticism should be replaced by care—the voices I helped nurture will not die. The habitual self–flagellation has evolved into unrelenting loathing that mantras of self-help and introspection can't shut out.
In an attempt to quiet them, I distract myself, but all that does is remind me how standard I am. Watching TV or movies makes me think about scripts that have never seen the light of day. Whenever I read a good book, I lament that I'm so much further away from getting a book deal than I was at twenty-two. And when I scroll on my timeline and witness peers jumping ten steps ahead of me for an ugly moment, I can't help but question why they deserve to be so lucky instead of me. It's getting to the point where my internal pressure, guilt, or whatever the fuck I call it, is about to rupture. My need to Be The Best and inability to reach that height before twenty-five has become my Achilles heel.
The loathing happens the most at night when there are no distractions to keep my thoughts busy. In their absence, I'm left with the one person I can't tolerate—myself. Is that not deeply mortifying? I devote so much of my time parading myself off as an enlightened individual with all the answers, but I'm more like an anxious child that can't spend so much as an hour alone in silence because I insist on feeling guilty. I never used to be this bad. I struggled with my mental health but never felt so permanently stuck. It could be the hormones, which seems like a stone age sexist excuse, but wouldn't it be equally as sexist to deny that they have impacted my mental health?
On the other hand, it could be the fact I find myself freelancing during a recession and the cost of living crisis. Even though your twenties are supposed to be somewhat unstable, I guarantee it wasn't supposed to be this rough. My old therapist would probably tell me that I'm catastrophising my worries inwardly, and a part of me knows she'd be correct, but it feels so much easier doing that than facing reality.
Getting hundreds of rejections for jobs you're overqualified for is defeating, especially when you've incurred £50,000 of student debt to get your foot in the door. It would be nice to do something meaningful for a living, but the job market has dried up, and nobody wants to hire a writer who can't double her workload as an influencer. In the modern artistic marketplace, you're required to be a multi-hyphenate. A writer, editor, filmmaker, host, and beloved personality all in one. Your work no longer speaks for itself—it must prove why it deserves the dwindling resources the arts have left. In the same way, tech-finance-bros have wormed their way into movies, creating an impossible expectation of making a billion dollars for every release; creatives are expected to succeed instantly; if it doesn't happen, one strike and you're out.
How can I reach instant success if I’m scheduling time off because I’m constantly in pain? What purpose do I serve in the hellscape of paid writing in 2023 as a chronically ill person? Am I as useless as guilt? I know I need to stop basing so much of my self-worth on whether I’m hireable, but how am I supposed to do that when I have to spend the rest of my life answering that inescapable question of, “So what is it you do?”
Sometimes it sounds more like they’re asking, “What are you worth to me?” And in all honesty, I feel like saying, “Nothing, nothing at all.”
A special thanks to Nadia. Your eternal optimism gives me hope for one day being happier with myself.
The grades at British universities are classified as 1st, 2:1, 2:2, etc. 2:1 is the equivalent of an A- or B grade
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